This article was published in the Sunday Herald on May 30, 2010.
It was first suggested that the Gulf of Mexico spill could be “Obama’s Katrina” long before a drop of oil from the ruptured well hit shore. Republicans remember how badly George Bush was damaged by his government’s woeful response to the hurricane and are eager to paint his successor with the same brush. Five weeks after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, the tar is beginning to stick.
On Thursday, the crisis claimed its first political casualty. Materials Management Service executive Elizabeth Birnbaum resigned with immediate effect, reportedly under intense pressure from her superiors. At a testy White House press conference, Obama could not, or would not, say whether she had been pushed out.
Defending his government’s handling of the disaster, the President reiterated, time and again, that the buck stops with him. “My job right now is just to make sure that everybody in the Gulf understands this is what I wake up to in the morning and this is what I go to bed at night thinking about,” he said. “In case you’re wondering who’s responsible, I take responsibility.”
To Obama’s acute embarrassment, it was subsequently revealed that BP had suspended the “top kill” operation to plug the leak several hours earlier, without telling anyone in the administration – a telling example of muddied lines of command and communication.
In the absence of decisive action, political poison is infecting the discourse as surely as toxins are seeping into Louisiana’s fragile swamplands. Wall Street Journal columnist Karl Rove, previously a trusted adviser to George Bush, wrote that “Mr. Obama’s failure to lead in cleaning up the spill could lead voters to echo his complaint in Katrina’s aftermath: ‘I wish that the federal government had been up to the task.’”
Democratic strategist James Carville’s complaint was less predictable – and much more visceral. From New Orleans, live on ABC television, he addressed the President directly: “Man, you got to get down here and take control of this. Put somebody in charge of this thing and get this moving. We’re about to die down here!
“They could be deploying people to the coast right now. He could be with the Corps of Engineers and the Coast Guard… These people are crying, they’re begging for something down here, and it just looks like he’s not involved in this.” When Obama honoured a prior commitment to attend a fundraiser for California Senator Barbara Boxer, in a mansion owned by heirs to the Getty oil fortune, it left him wide open to attack.
On Friday, he finally visited the affected area for a second time. He spent the morning talking with local officials, praised the co-ordinated response in LaFourche parish and spoke of “the largest clean-up operation is US history” without ever reaching the levels of urgency he displayed in the final weeks of the health care debate.
The trip did at least supply some much needed images of the Commander-in-Chief looking purposeful, flanked by Governors of the Gulf states and the coastguard’s top man, Admiral Thad Allen. Although neither BP nor the government will admit it, stemming the flow of bad publicity is a top priority, second only to capping the well itself. The environmental and economic damage has already been done.
Once the oil is in the water, it is incredibly hard to recover or disperse. The destructive effects of the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster are still being felt in Alaska. Some species of wildlife, particularly the Pacific Herring, have never recovered.
Rick Steiner, an Alaskan marine scientist who took part in the clean-up operation, said it was largely a futile exercise. “There has never been an effective response to a large oil spill, ever, anywhere. Maybe they’ve gotten 1% of the oil back this time, maybe less. They need to do what they can to protect these barrier islands and sensitive wetlands but the battle is lost.”
The Gulf of Mexico is America’s second biggest fishery, after Alaska, supplying around 100 million kilos of shrimp each year, in addition to mackerel, swordfish, mullet, red snapper and oysters. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that it 100,000 jobs are dependent on the seafood industry.
Byron Escalades, a trawler captain from Plaquemines parish in Louisiana, said a whole way of life is under threat. “These people have been fishermen for generations,” he told me. “They don’t believe in welfare. They don’t believe in their government supporting them. They were offered help with food stamps and that struck a nerve. They said ‘we don’t want no food stamps, we want to work for a living.’”
While the fishing grounds are closed, the best they can hope for is temporary employment with BP, setting protective booms, spraying chemical dispersant and attempting to mop up the oil. In Breton Sound, work was suspended and the boats called in after fishermen complained of chest pains and nausea caused by the toxic fumes.
In the most recent USA Today/Gallup poll, 76% of respondents faulted BP’s handling of the spill. Worryingly for Obama, 53% also rated the federal response as “poor” or “very poor”.
Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar’s notorious claim that the administration’s job is to “keep the boot on the neck of British Petroleum” has been exposed as a hollow public relations exercise. Events have demonstrated that the corporation, not the government, is in control where it most matters. Obama’s ignorance of the “top kill” delays was merely the latest example.
For three weeks, BP declined to share video footage of the leak and resisted attempts to assess the amount of oil spewing into the sea. There was a good reason for this: the initial estimate of 5,000 barrels a day was hopelessly optimistic. Independent analysis conducted for the US Geological Survey concluded that three times as much crude is gushing from the well, making it by far America’s worst ever slick.
A second group of scientists, using satellite images and video from the seabed camera, estimated that the discharge could be 70,000 barrels a day. Much of this is underwater, broken up into smaller droplets by chemical dispersants but no less damaging to the marine ecosystem. Researchers from the University of South Florida found a submerged plume of oil six miles wide and 22 miles long.
Dispersants have never been used so deep, nor in such huge quantities. When the Environmental Protection Agency demanded that BP stop spraying Corexit and switch to something less toxic, the oil company ignored the order.
“The name of the product they’re using is Corexit. We call it ‘hides it’ because that’s what it does,” Steiner said. “The stuff is toxic, even more so in combination with oil. It’s basically transferring the damage from the surface down into the water column. It’s cosmetic. It’s theatre, to make people think ‘they’re responding, they’re doing their best.’”
On Thursday, Obama announced a six month moratorium on offshore drilling permits, plus the cancellation of two planned lease sales in Virginia and Alaska. This was undermined by the revelation that 17 new permits were issued in the past month, in direct contradiction of Salazar’s claim to have “hit the pause button” on oil exploration.
White House energy coordinator Carol Browner insisted that these were modifications to existing licenses, but it didn’t look good, particularly when National Public Radio pressed officials into admitting that there was never a written order to stop issuing permits.
This was merely the latest lapse at the Minerals Management Service (MMS), which under the Bush administration acquired a reputation as one of the most dysfunctional and corrupt agencies in government. Two years ago, a report compiled by the Department of the Interior’s Inspector General found widespread drug abuse, cronyism and the acceptance of bribes, including one manager who offered to write a positive appraisal of a subordinate if she scored him some cocaine.
This year’s report, delivered this week, was even more devastating – proof that the agency’s culture of corruption has persisted under the new administration. Employees at the office in Lakes Charles, Louisiana watched pornography on their government computers, accepted gifts from oil companies, carried out inspections while under the influence of drugs and considered themselves part of the business they were supposed to regulate.
“Obviously, we’re all oil industry,” district manager Larry Williamson told the investigators. “Almost all of our inspectors have worked for oil companies out on these same platforms. They grew up in the same towns. Some of these people, they’ve been friends with all their life. They’ve hunted together. They fish together.” Most damning of all, the report found that oil company employees often filled in MMS reports in pencil, for the agency staff to trace over in pen.
The government has already announced that the MMS will be split into pieces, dividing revenue collection from regulation. Birnbaum will not be the last forced out. The only question is whether anyone more senior will lose their job as a result of the spill. Despite his tough talk – “unlike the prior administration, this is not the candy store of the oil and gas kingdom” – Salazar is starting to look vulnerable.
On his visit to Grand Isle, Louisiana, Obama once again spoke of his determination to make BP pay “every last dime” of the clean up and compensation costs. The company has promised to honour “all legitimate claims” many times. Alaska’s fishermen know how slippery such language can be in the case of livelihoods blighted for a generation.
However much of the bill his government eventually gets stuck with, Obama is expending time and political capital that could otherwise have been invested in comprehensive immigration reform. How he must regret opening up new areas to offshore drilling less than three weeks before the catastrophe. “It turns out, by the way, that oil rigs today generally don’t cause spills,” he said at the time. “They are technologically very advanced.”